Who has not been scared and at the same time excited by a ghost story or the unexplainable appearance of a seeming apparition. Fascination with ghosts and the afterworld have griped audiences for centuries. Our appetite for such titillation seems insatiable. Ghost shows are nothing new. Writers, magicians, and lanternists have long used a popular fascination with ghosts and apparitions for their advantage. From its earliest inception the magic lantern has employed ghost figures to frighten and to entertain audiences. Some of the very earliest magic lantern images in the last part of the 17th century were of ghosts and demons. Calling forth such figures reached a new height in the late 1700s and early 1800s largely due to two showmen and their shows. The Fantasmagorie shows, popularized by Belgian showman Ettiene-Gaspard Robertson and the Phantasmagoria shows of magician Paul de Philipsthal, called forth apparitions on the screen. Their shows ingeniously employed rear projection. The lanternist was hidden from the audience behind the screen. The images would appear in a room darkened on the screen as from nowhere. By moving the lantern, the figure could be made smaller or larger so ghosts would appear and then menacingly approach the audience.
Each time a new illusion is created we are freshly mesmerized and entertained. Pepper’s Ghost sits within a long tradition of showmen taking advantage of popular fascination with the afterlife. Pepper’s Ghost, named after the honorary director of London’s Royal Polytechnic, John Henry Pepper, was an elaborate theatrical illusion that gave the appearance of a ghost-like figure not only appearing but also moving on a stage. Pepper’s Ghost was first exhibited on Christmas Eve in 1862 during the staging of Charles Dickens’s The Haunted House when, to great acclaim, a ghost appeared on stage next to a man working at his desk. In a period of fifteen months 250,000 people were entertained at the Polytechnic by this show. The popularity of the illusion was so great that imitators were soon employing it elsewhere. Within a few years, the ghost shows had moved out of the polytechnic and into fairgrounds across England. The illusion is still employed today. Anyone who has taken the haunted house ride in Disneyland and found themselves, mid-ride, seated with a ghost have enjoyed Peppers Ghost.
What is Pepper’s Ghost? Here are three prints from my collection, two small woodcuts and a large lithograph visually illustrating how the illusion is created. All three show the basic idea behind the illusion: below the stage there is a lanternist with a magic lantern (to provide a powerful light), and costumed actor. The light against the actor is reflected in an enormous angled mirror that the audience cannot see in the darkened theatre. The reflection seems to appear on the stage.
Although there are some differences in each of the prints, all show the same basic “props”: hidden lantern, dressed actor, angled mirror and the ghost on the stage. Interestingly, each of the three prints shows a different scene on stage, indicating that once perfected the illusion was used in a number of different performances.
And what is the history of Pepper’s Ghost? John Henry Pepper teamed up with Henry Dircks, who had a well thought out idea for projecting a ghost onto a stage to develop and stage the illusion. Soon the pair had a falling out, each claiming the “invention” of the Ghost show. History has attached the name of John Henry Pepper to the illusion.
Finally here is a broadside from my collection advertising “the real” Pepper’s Ghost Show in 1870 given by James Matthews. Matthews, who worked at the Royal Polytechnic as a magician, proclaims his ties both with the Royal Polytechnic and with Pepper. The broadside boldly announces the appearance of PROFESSOR PEPPER”S MARVELOUS GHOST for two nights.